Pedro Lascuráin served as president of Mexico for less than one hour. The country’s 1857 constitution dictated that the line of succession to the presidency ran through the vice president, the attorney general, the foreign minister, and the interior minister. On Feb. 19, 1913, general Victoriano Huerta overthrew President Francisco Madero as well as his vice president and attorney general. To give his coup some appearance of legitimacy, he had foreign minister Lascuráin assume the presidency, appoint him interior minister, then resign. Lascuráin’s presidency is the shortest in world history.

Charles Brandon was Duke of Suffolk for one hour in 1551. He inherited the title when his elder brother Henry died of sweating sickness, then succumbed himself to the same disease, giving him the shortest tenure of a British peer.

Louis X of France died while his wife was pregnant, so that their son, John I, was born onto the throne. That makes him the youngest king in French history and the only person to have been king of France since birth. He lived only five days, so he’s also the only person to have held the French throne throughout his life. He’s remembered as “John the Posthumous.”

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As a joke, Sosus of Pergamon created an “unswept floor” on which the refuse of a dinner table lies scattered.

Sosus laid the original floor at the royal palace in Pergamon in the second century B.C. It quickly became a favorite — wealthy Romans copied it, and it’s the only mosaic mentioned in Pliny’s history of art.

The Poverty Map

When H.M. Hyndman claimed that 25 percent of Londoners lived in abject poverty, Charles Booth was skeptical. So he organized his own investigation. His findings, published as Life and Labour of the People in 1889, showed that fully 35 percent of residents in the East End were poor.

In the map above, the red areas are “middle class, well-to-do,” light blue areas are “poor, 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family,” dark blue areas are “very poor, casual, chronic want,” and black areas are the “lowest class … occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals.” (More of Booth’s maps can be seen here.)

A second volume, covering the rest of London, was published in 1891, and a third, in 17 volumes, appeared in 1902. He pressed for many reforms, but he remained optimistic. “What is needed is more vigorous life in every direction: social, educational, industrial, political and religious,” he concluded. “If they be evidences of vigour, pleasure seeking and extravagance need not be condemned, nor even some excess be dreaded. We may confidently trust in the balance of forces; a running stream is always wholesome; a stagnant pool, the danger.”

In a Word

adj. suitable for felling (as a tree)

Lumberjack argot, from L.G. Sorden and Jacque Vallier’s Lumberjack Lingo, 1986:

two streaks of rust: a logging railroad
cougar milk: Prohibition-era woods liquor
quinine jimmy: a camp doctor
bunch it: to quit work
kegging up: getting drunk
tree squeak: an imaginary bird to which the noise made by trees rubbing together was attributed
she’s a rainbow: What a day!
house of hesitation: a jail
traveling dandruff: lice
iron burner: the camp blacksmith
sawdust city: Eau Claire, Wisconsin

“It’s five a.m. and the gabriel blows. The bark eaters fall out of their muzzle loaders and head for the chuck house to bolt down a pile of stovelids with lots of blackstrap, some fried murphys or Johnny cake and maybe some logging berries. They dunk their rolling stock into their jerk water, growl at the hash slinger, pull up their galluses and head for the tall timber.”

Silent Warning

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In the early days of motoring, bicycle patrolmen with Britain’s Automobile Association would sometimes warn AA members of nearby speed traps. In a 1910 legal case, Chief Justice Lord Alverston found this practice illegal — in effect the patrolman would be “obstructing an officer in the course of his duty.”

So AA adopted a new policy — an AA patrolman would salute any car that bore an AA badge … unless there was a speed trap nearby. The AA Handbook warned members, “It cannot be too strongly emphasised that when a patrol fails to salute, the member should stop and ask the reason why, as it is certain that the patrol has something of importance to communicate.”

The new system was used until the 1960s.

A Cheap Pain Reliever

In a 2009 experiment, Keele University researchers Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston asked two groups of subjects to hold their hands in ice water. One group was asked to swear while they did so, and the other was asked to say neutral words. The swearers were able to hold their hands in the water twice as long, and these subjects reported feeling less pain.

No one’s quite sure why this works — perhaps swearing activates the amygdala, which leads to a release of adrenaline, producing natural pain relief. Stephens said, “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear.”

Interestingly, Stephens later found that people who reported swearing every day reported a lesser pain-deadening effect than those who swore less often. Perhaps people who seldom swear place a higher emotional value on these words, which triggers a stronger chemical response.

“Swearing is a very emotive form of language and our findings suggest that over-use of swear words can water down their emotional effect,” Stephens said. “Used in moderation, swearing can be an effective and readily available short-term pain reliever if, for example, you are in a situation where there is no access to medical care or painkillers. However, if you’re used to swearing all the time, our research suggests you won’t get the same effect.”

A Chorus of Versus
Image: Flickr

In 1943, Texas panhandle farmer Ray L. Batman converted his farm into a family partnership by transferring some assets to his teenage son, Gerald. But it turned out that the son had no actual desire to become his father’s partner, and in fact Ray had taken the measures against the advice of his accountant, apparently in order to reduce his income tax liability. The IRS deemed the partnership illegitimate and assessed Ray and his wife a fine of $10,000 each.

This meant that, when the family sued the head of the IRS, the case was recorded as Batman v. Commissioner.

John G. Browning collected some further odd case titles for the Texas Bar Journal in 2011:

Schmuck v. United States
United States v. Dolt
Klump v. Duffus
Plough v. Fields
Silver v. Gold
Brain v. Mann
Juicy Whip v. Orange Bang
United States v. Estate of Grace
State of Indiana v. Virtue
Death v. Graves
Easter Seals Society for Crippled Children v. Playboy Enterprises
Julius Goldman’s Egg City v. United States
United States v. Bad Marriage
United States v. Vampire Nation

“And let’s just say that some plaintiffs have identity issues, as demonstrated by I Am the Beast Six Six Six of the Lord of Hosts in Edmond Frank MacGillivray Jr. Now. I Am the Beast Six Six Six of the Lord of Hosts IEFMJN. I Am the Beast Six Six Six of the Lord of Hosts. I Am the Beast Six Six Six of the Lord of Hosts OTLOHIEFMJN. I Am the Beast SSSOTLOHIEFMJN. I Am the Beast Six Six Six. Beast Six Six Six Lord v. Michigan State Police, et al., File No. 5:89:92, 1990 U.S. Dist. Lexis 8792 (W.D. Mich. July 12, 1990). I hear his friends just call him ‘Six.'”

A Look Ahead

The writing in Hugo Gernsback’s 1911 science fiction novel Ralph 124C 41+ is uniformly terrible:

As the vibrations died down in the laboratory the big man arose from the glass chair and viewed the complicated apparatus on the table. It was complete to the last detail. He glanced at the calendar. It was September 1st in the year 2660. Tomorrow was to be a big and busy day for him, for it was to witness the final phase of the three-year experiment. He yawned and stretched himself to his full height, revealing a physique much larger than that of the average man of his times and approaching that of the huge Martians.

But it successfully predicted spaceflight, tape recorders, sound movies, solar energy, artificial cloth, television, synthetic foods, remote-control power transmission, the videophone, transcontinental air service, and voiceprinting. While Martin Gardner called it “surely the worst SF novel ever written,” Arthur C. Clarke marveled that it contains the first accurate description of radar, encountered when Ralph is pursuing the villain who has kidnapped his girlfriend:

A pulsating polarized ether wave, if directed on a metal object can be reflected in the same manner as a light-ray is reflected from a bright surface or from a mirror. … By manipulating the entire apparatus like a searchlight, waves would be sent over a large area. Sooner or later the waves would strike a space flyer. A small part of the waves would strike the metal body of the flyer, and these waves would be reflected back to the sending apparatus. Here they would fall on the Actinoscope, which records only reflected waves, not direct ones. … From the intensity and the elapsed time of the reflected impulses, the distance between the earth and the flyer can then be accurately and quickly calculated.

Clarke calls Ralph 124C 41+ “dreadful but fascinating. … The pun in the title gives you a good idea of its literary quality.” The full text is here.

Setting the Date

A romantic puzzle from Albert H. Beiler’s Recreations in the Theory of Numbers:

An ardent swain said to his lady love, some years ago, ‘Once when a week ago last Tuesday was tomorrow, you said, “When a day just two fortnights hence will be yesterday, let us get married as it will be just this day next month.” Now sweetheart, we have waited just a fortnight so as it is now the second of the month let us figure out our wedding day.’

Beiler’s book came out in 1964, so he gives the answer Tuesday, March 17, 1936 — the couple are speaking on March 2, discussing a conversation they had on February 17. Obviously the answer is not unique — “Tuesday, March 17, 1908, is another solution but then the swain would not be very young.” Basically we need a leap year in which March 17 falls on a Tuesday. Beiler finds these occur also in 1964 and 1992 — and one did in 2020 as well.